Now That’s Fast. But Is It Likely?

A magnetic levitation train would make the trip from Southern California to Las Vegas pass by in mere minutes

T.R. Witcher

In Las Vegas there exists a well-justified faith—if we can just build it, people will come. Which is good news for Bruce Aguilera, who is leading an effort to bring magnetic levitation trains to Southern Nevada.

Maglev trains sound like science fiction—they have no moving parts, hover inches above fixed guidelines and can reach speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour. But they're real. The world's first commercial maglev line runs between Shanghai's airport and central business district, and the race is heating up to demonstrate the technology can work in America. Aquilera, who's ridden the Chinese train, describes the ride as smooth, silent, and very fast.

"I can tell you from experience over in China that everybody wants to ride it," he says.

Aquilera is the chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, which is proposing a maglev line that could eventually run from Las Vegas all the way to Anaheim. A maglev train could chew up the 269-mile route, with stops in Primm, Barstow, Victorville and Ontario, in just 86 minutes. "It's another reason to come to Las Vegas," he says. "It demonstrates the technology is safe, is feasible."

The Vegas train is one of three demonstration maglev lines Congress is considering funding, and a decision could be reached within the next 30 days. The train commission estimates that the 40-mile leg from Las Vegas to Primm, which would be built first, could yield more than 32,000 daily one-way trips during its first year of operation, with tickets costing around $4 to $6—although Primm is not exactly a major tourist or business center, and one suspects the novelty of maglev might wear off well short of 32,000 riders.

Neil Cummings, president of American Magline, the company set to build the Las Vegas line, says that most of the riders would be tourists looking for a new experience. Riding the world's fastest train would probably qualify. "It's not much of a stretch when you consider what people spend their money on in Las Vegas," he says.

Still, by 2018, boosters believe a built-out system will carry more than 40 million passengers a year, create 97,000 jobs in Southern Nevada, and pump $1.2 billion in new tourist spending into Las Vegas. If selected, construction on the Nevada line could begin within 14 months, once American Magline wraps up environmental impact studies, and be finished 18 months after that.

High-speed train service in one form or another between Las Vegas and Southern California has been talked about since at least 1980, when Las Vegas received funding from the Federal Railroad Administration to study the feasibility of service. In 1988, the state legislatures of Nevada and California established the super- speed train commission to find a private developer to build the system. Bechtel proposed to build a system in 1990, for a cost of $5.1 billion, to be financed with bonds, but backed out when the Persian Gulf War hit.

For years California politicians had been less than enthusiastic. "When the idea originally came forward, the reaction was a negative one," says Alan Wapner, the mayor pro tem of Ontario, one of the stops on the line. "They saw it as a casino express—a way to export California dollars out of the state." By the time Wapner joined the 16-member commission in the mid-'90s, however, planners in the Golden State realized that a rapidly growing population in Southern Nevada could bring dollars into California.

Still, to secure the cooperation of California legislators, the commission agreed to build the second portion of the line from Anaheim to Ontario, where officials hope to turn Ontario's below-capacity airport into a major transit hub. "That really changed everything politically," Wapner says.

In 1998, Congress passed TEA-21, its comprehensive transportation bill, which earmarked $218 billion over six years for transportation-related projects, and created a national maglev technology development program. A billion dollars was set aside to fund one test line. Seven proposals vied for the federal dollars, including the Las Vegas-Anaheim line, as well as lines in Florida, New Orleans, Atlanta and Los Angeles

In January 2001, in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration selected two projects as finalists. One was a 45-mile line linking Pittsburgh International Airport with downtown Pittsburgh, selected in part to see whether maglev could operate in that city's challenging, hilly terrain. The second project would connect Washington's Union Station and downtown Baltimore, with a midway stop at Baltimore-Washington Airport. This line would also serve as the core segment of a maglev line that would run from Boston to as far south as Charlotte or even Atlanta.

"Since then we have been working quite diligently with members of Congress and other jurisdictions to make a case, a very strong case, that our project should have been concluded," says Aguilera.

Nevada's biggest supporter? Turns out it's Republican Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Ostensibly, Young's vision is to find "ways for people to move from point A to point B in a more efficient way," says Mike Anderson, his chief of staff. What that really means, say observers, is that Young was tired of seeing transportation funding going to the East Coast.

The chief selling point of the Vegas-to-Primm line is the cheap cost—only $1.3 billion, substantially less than the $3.7 billion estimated for either the Pittsburgh or the Baltimore line. This is because the Primm line has by far the lowest right-of-way acquisition costs. "We are probably in the best position to get some funding," Aguilera says.

Congress is mulling over its new transportation bill now. The Senate just passed its own version last week, a $295 billion package. (The Bush Administration has already stated it would veto the legislation if the Senate requested more than $284 billion.) Of that, more than $3 billion has been authorized for maglev construction.

There are a lot of question marks, of course. No one knows for sure whether maglev funding will, in fact, be authorized by the new federal bill, or whether Las Vegas will get the nod. And the commission hasn't even begun work on figuring out where a Las Vegas terminal would be built. But Aguilera, for one, is certain that maglev is a sure bet. "I know this train works."

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